The Golden Age: If You Aren’t Watching Masters of Sex, You’re Missing Out

by Matt McGuire (WG’16)

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Masters, whose 2nd season finale airs September 28, could be a lot a worse and remain amazing because its lead is Lizzy Caplan, who is such an incredibly talented performer that watching her do anything is worth your time. You know her as the uncool friend of Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls, but she has grown into perhaps the greatest nonverbal actress of our generation. Like Bryan Cranston, she is not only able to exhibit a thought facially, but also looks incredibly natural doing it.  To see this in a movie, check out Bachelorette (streamable on Netflix), a very adult comedy reminiscent of The Hangover except for the fact that it a) has all female leads and b) is actually funny.

But to see her do this on a TV show, check out Masters!  That the best running show is on Showtime is a bit of a shocker, as Showtime’s programming tends to be painfully formulaic. From Weeds with Mary-Louise Parker to Californication with David Duchovny, Showtime takes charismatic lead performers, sautés them in snappy dialogue, and seasons them with a hip soundtrack – serving-up dishes tasty with entertainment value but low on artistic nutritional content. Perhaps because Masters of Sex is based on a novel which itself is based on a true story (disclosure: I refuse to read it so as to avoid becoming one of those “the book is so much better” people), Showtime cannot take the low road.

The show centers on the struggles of real-life medical researchers Bill Masters (played with admirable restraint by Michael Sheen) and Virginia Johnson (Caplan’s character) to pursue research on human sexuality. The “how” of people reproducing was extremely misunderstood in the repressed 1950s, and any inquiry into the subject was characterized as smut. I feel like I can say without getting into spoiler territory that Master’s bosses were less than thrilled about their employee pursuing this line of work, so watching him at first surreptitiously, and then through sting-pulling and bullying, do his research is fascinating – and original! Watching a scientist struggle to gain funding and approval for his work is just something new and different in a field of Golden Age programming that often recycles the same themes.

Also (sadly) rare is a show that looks at the world through a woman’s eyes. This aspect of the show alone will keep you hooked.  Caplan’s character is Masters’ star. She’s the indefatigable uneducated single-mother research assistant to Bill Masters, and the social and bureaucratic jujitsu she deploys to maintain this position is my favorite part of the show. Indeed, the shows handles all gender issues artfully – dealing with feminist themes without becoming an after-school special, or without the annoying a head-writer-is-winking-at-you sense one gets watching other shows that deal with these themes. Mad Men’s Matthew Weiner could take a lesson in subtlety from Masters writer/producer Michelle Ashford.

Showtime seems to know it has winner, as it has renewed the Masters of Sex for a third season. There are a dozen other reasons to watch it, from the solid costume design to the masterful (sorry- I had to) issue episodes that are unrelated to the narrative arc but are near-perfect nonetheless.  If you only watch one episode, check out season 2, episode 3, Fight, an episode that keeps you glued to the TV for its duration and haunts your thoughts long after you finish.

But don’t only watch one episode! Start bingeing now and you can catch up by Sunday 10PM, when Masters airs.  You are sure to have an amazing experience.